McConnell: No Trafficking Bill, No Lynch Vote

Republicans say they won't bring the attorney general up for confirmation until Democrats relent.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell isn't budging.

Senate Republicans sought to escalate pressure on Democrats on Tuesday as they seek the two more votes across the aisle needed to move human-trafficking legislation that has been ensnared in the volatile politics of abortion policy. The delay has meant no confirmation vote for Loretta Lynch, President Obama's pick to be the next attorney general.

At a press conference in the Capitol, McConnell said he's planning to schedule more roll calls on the bill that fell short in a procedural vote earlier in the day. "We are going to stay on this bill. It is important to victims of trafficking," he said.

McConnell's comments came a few hours after the bill stalled on the Senate floor in a 55-43 vote when 60 votes were needed to advance the measure toward final passage.

Four Democrats—Robert Casey, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly and Joe Manchin—voted with Republicans (McConnell voted against it, which under Senate procedures preserves the ability to try and advance the measure again). Two Republicans—Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham—were not present at the vote. With all GOP members present, Republicans would need just two more Democratic votes to reach the 60 needed to beat a filibuster.

Republicans say they don't plan to schedule a vote on Lynch until work on the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act is completed. And with the chamber due to consider a budget blueprint next week— and a two-week Easter recess looming after that—it's hard to see any daylight for a Lynch vote.

"I'm grateful to the majority leader ... for saying we're going to come back and vote again and again and again on this human-trafficking bill until it passes," said Majority Whip John Cornyn, the bill's lead sponsor, on the floor Tuesday. "And he's not going to schedule the nomination confirmation vote on the next attorney general until such time as we get this passed."

The political logjam over the bill underscores the perils facing even bipartisan legislation in the modern Senate. The measure toughens penalties for human trafficking, smuggling and slavery, sexual abuse, and sexual exploitation of children. The measure creates a victims' fund with the penalties.

But the bill is stuck in a dispute over language that prevents money from the fund from being used for abortions.

Democrats say they missed the language when the bill sailed through the Judiciary Committee last month and demanded its removal before they vote for the bill. "Republicans have chosen to manufacture a political fight that has nothing to do with human trafficking," Harry Reid, the the Senate minority leader, said on the floor Tuesday.

"Abortion legislation has no place in human-trafficking legislation," Reid said.

And Sen. Dick Durbin complained Lynch was being held "political hostage" by the GOP.

Top Republicans call the Democrats' claims about not noticing the language false and accuse Democrats of thwarting the bill to please abortion-rights lobbyists.

"Each of these Democrats has a highly skilled professional staff, and they themselves weren't born last night, didn't fall off a turnip truck," Cornyn said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "They know what the legislation included and it had language in it that they had voted for repeatedly in previous pieces of legislation."

The underlying bill has broad bipartisan support. Several senators have expressed hope of working out a compromise.

"I think there is [a path forward]," Sen. Susan Collins told reporters in the Capitol. "Whether people want to take it, I can't say."

"Conversations are going on," Collins said, but did not provide details.

Rachel Roubein contributed to this article